Race, bisexuality, and the blues in the music of Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin

“Bye, bye baby”: race, bisexuality, and the blues in the music of Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin

Jana Evans Braziel

Bye, bye-bye, baby, bye-bye.

I may be seeing you around

When I change my living standard and I move uptown,

Bye-bye, baby, bye-bye.

So long, my honey, so long.

Too bad you had to drift away

‘Cause I could use some company

Right here on this road, on this road I’m on today.

(“Bye, Bye Baby,” Powell St. John)


Bessie Smith–the woman who under Ma Rainey’s tutelage later defined the musical genre of blues in the early part of the twentieth century–“lay in an unmarked grave” (Kay 132) from 1937 until August 1970, when Juanita Greene, President of the North Philadelphia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (whose mother had cleaned house for Smith) and Janis Joplin purchased a marble gravestone to commemorate her life and to commiserate her death (Albertson Bessie 233; Echols 237; Kay 133). Joplin died less than two months later on October 4, 1970, ironically on the same date that Smith had been buried 33 years earlier. This memorial event symbolically marked only one of the many connections between the women’s lives. Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin have both been described–by their biographers, their fans, and their critics–as heavy-drinking, hard-living, loose-loving, flamboyant, lewd, lascivious, even down-right-raunchy women. For many people, their unforgettable music, their short lives, and their tragic deaths were defined by excess. Linda Gottfried, close friend and confidante to Janis Joplin, believed Joplin to have been Bessie Smith, “Empress of the Blues,” reincarnated (Joplin 126). Eerily echoing Gottfried’s belief, a 1969 issue of Newsweek, featuring Joplin on the cover, proclaimed the “Rebirth of the Blues.” (Posthumously, Joplin was also featured in a 1974 Time article curiously called “The New Bisexuals” (Garber 19).) In a biography of her sister’s life, Laura Joplin also notes the influences, musical and personal, of blues and jazz legends Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, and Willie Mae Thornton on Joplin. Laura Joplin writes, “She used her innate drama and power to project her personality into her music. She wore bright satiny clothes and feathers in her hair. She was foulmouthed and bisexual” (126); it is not until the next sentence, “her brief period of public acclaim came between 1923 and 1928” (126), that the pronoun referent, “she,” is clear: Bessie-Janis? Janis-Bessie? The lines could describe either of the two women. Jackie Kay, who has written a biography of Bessie Smith, writes that Joplin “had always been a great admirer of Bessie Smith’s and her own music was influenced by the Empress” (Kay 133). “Listen to songs,” Kay explains, “and you can hear Bessie way in the background. ‘Coming Home Blues’, ‘Turtle Blues’, ‘Kozmic Blues’, and ‘I Need a Man’ all carry the torch for the Empress” (133). “Trouble in Mind” is one of the bluesiest tunes recorded by Joplin, and certainly evokes the heroic sway and swing of Smith’s voice. Janis also covered songs that Bessie Smith had recorded, such as “Black Mountain Blues,” and songs written by Ma Rainey (“See See Rider”) and Willie Mae Thornton (“Ball and Chain”).

Bessie Smith’s influence on Janis Joplin is well noted. According to biographer Ellis Amburn, Joplin claimed that she had wanted to become a blues singer ever since Grant Lyons, a high-school friend, had loaned her records by Smith and Leadbelly (Amburn 22). Powell St. John–also a Texas friend, who wrote “Bye, Bye Baby”–recalls how shocked he was to hear Janis “singing like Bessie Smith, absolutely authentic” (Echols 114). In an early review of Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, written by Ed Denson for The Berkeley Barb, Denson refers to Joplin as a “blues wailer working material from Shirley & Lee back to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, with the ability to scream and throw her body into the music” (Joplin 171). Joplin herself, referring to Smith, said: “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it” (Amburn 22). Jae Whitaker, one of Joplin’s lovers from her early years in the Bay Area, says that Joplin idolized Smith, adding that “she [herself] felt she was Bessie Smith reincarnated” (Echols 75). In a letter to her mother Dorothy Joplin in 1966, Joplin writes, “I’m the best chick blues singer, bar none–not even Bessie Smith” (Joplin 174).

Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin also inspired musicians, artists, and writers even after their deaths. Many African-American artists, particularly gay artists and writers, have paid tribute to Smith’s influence–including Langston Hughes in several essays and his autobiography The Big Sea; James Baldwin in well-known essays such as “A Stranger in the Village,” “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” and in the novel In Another Country; Amiri Baraka in Blues People: Negro Music in White America; and Isaac Julien in his film Looking for Langston. Smith has also been the subject of other important literary texts, including Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith, a play that focused on the scandal of her demise, and a poem by Michael Ondaatje, “Bessie Smith at Roy Thomson Hall.” Joplin’s life and death also inspired artists, musicians, and writers, particularly lesbian and bisexual women: Joan Baez wrote a song commemorating her death; Marilyn Hacker wrote a poem, “Elegy, for Janis Joplin”; and Melissa Etheridge and other female rock stars have noted Joplin’s influence on their own music. Joplin has also been the subject of many biographies and most recently a play about her life and death, Janis, which opened in Cleveland, Ohio.

The commonalities between Smith and Joplin, in fact, are many. Both women recorded with Columbia Records, which has rereleased boxed sets of their recordings in the last decade. Both women are popular cultural icons who defined their eras in American history. Daughters of the South, both women defied (and yet, at times, paradoxically embodied) the social mores and cultural strictures defining gender and sexuality. Both women were innovative musical blues artists, indeed legends, Joplin undeniably and indelibly marked by the influence of Smith. Both women were openly bisexual, although this was furtively hidden from various people at various points of time in their lives. Yet the two women–their music, their love affairs, and their lives–were also defined by their differences: most prominently, that of racial difference. Both were born in the South (Smith in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Joplin in Port Arthur, Texas) during volatile points in its racial history–Smith in the Jim Crow era of disenfranchisement and oppression, just two years after Plessy v. Ferguson in a part of the South where even railcars transporting the dead were racially segregated (Kruger-Kahloula 143); Joplin in the volatile World War II, pre-Civil Rights South of segregation and continued racial oppression. This difference (that of race) was hardly an insignificant one. In this article, I explore that difference and its implications for thinking about the performances of blues and bisexuality.

Sex, “spoiled identities,” and performances of blues and bisexuality

In the introduction to 18 Essential Songs, released by Columbia Records in 1995, Mary Katherine Aldin laments the fact that in a “hefty handful of biographies” and “in the steady stream of respective articles,” Joplin’s music “often takes second place” to her “lifestyle: her tough blues-mama image … alcohol dependency, notorious sexual escapades, and the drug abuse that finally killed her” (5). The same could be said, of course, of Bessie Smith. And in some ways, this study perpetuates this cultural analysis of Smith and Joplin, addressing their loves and their lives, but it also attempts to place such notoriety in relation to their blues music, its lyrical and musical seduction, its performance, its performativity. This article further attempts to understand how bisexuality and bisexual identities (or dis-identities) are performed through blues, and the difference race makes in such performances. Finally, the present study also problematizes bisexuality as a coherent place of political identity, belonging, and neat sexual identification precisely by focusing on Smith and Joplin’s loves, lives, and blues performances. Unsurprisingly, Smith’s and Joplin’s bisexualities have often been characterized, negatively, in relation to their iconoclastic lifestyles, their wild and excessive lives.

Many people, including black people, regarded Smith as “vulgar, crude, lewd, common, rough, raucous, lowlife” (Kay 66). If she was rejected by an elite and urban northern black community, she also reviled them, scorning their white lifestyle as “dicty” (a pejorative coinage) (Feinstein 13). When invited to a party at Carl Van Vechten’s Manhattan apartment and offered a martini, she demanded a whisky; later in the evening, when asked to sing, Smith mocked the classism of New York’s arts community by singing “Work House Blues,” but Van Vechten still adored her, describing her later as that “wonderful heart cut open with a knife until it was exposed for all to see” (Kay 113). Smith is not only famous for her blues singing, but also infamous for her whisky drinking, carousing, fighting, and yelling, including her well-known and “insolent admonition to ‘kiss her black ass'” (Feinstein 29). According to Kay, “there are almost as many stories about Bessie Smith’s violent, drunken bawdiness as there are blues…. It is not just her blues that fascinate, but her wild, drunk, promiscuous, generous, cussing personality” (110). Humphrey Lyttleton similarly, if less admiringly, writes that Smith was known for “portentous rages, tempestuous love-affairs, wild bouts of generosity, epic binges and not infrequent recourse to devastating fisticuffs,” all of which “leave us with the impression of a totally untamed creature who remained, to the end of her days, immune from the restraints of manners or convention” (Lyttleton, quoted in Kay 95). That this sentiment was shared by other African Americans is clear. In “Life According to the Beat: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, and the Perilous Sounds of Love,” an engaging article to which my own work is indebted, Josh Kun writes:

Bessie Smith signified a version of American blackness he [Baldwin]

had yet to confront. She was the summation of all the stereotypes,

all the prejudices, all the projected racial and sexual fantasies,

all the watermelons and pickaninnies and dialectic speech, and all

the externally imposed self-hate. It was Bessie who, in her first

studio test in 1922, was rejected for being “too rough”; it was

Bessie whom both Okeh and Black Swan–the black label for which W.

C. Handy and W. E. B. Du Bois sat on the board–turned down because

her voice was too rough, too Negro, too black; it was Bessie who had

been born in abject poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and it was

Bessie who was the most popular singer of “classic blues,” which

many educated, upwardly mobile blacks in the 1920s condemned as a

crude art form and, ultimately, a “racial embarrassment.” (Kun

312) (1)

The Blues had always been “associated with a lack of manners,” yet Elaine Feinstein argues that Smith transformed the cultural meanings of these associations: “roughness became formidable and the lack of social acceptability became defiance” (14).

Like Smith, Joplin also rejected notions of social acceptability, scandalizing not only the citizens of Port Arthur and other small-town, hometown communities in the heartland, but also on occasion her friends in San Francisco. Joplin was known for her bluesy rock style, her outrageous movements, her outlandish outfits–out, out, out–but she was equally known for her perennial bottle of Southern Comfort in hand, her multiple sex partners, her one-night-stand attitude, and her syringes–or, sex, drugs, and “cheap thrills,” as the first album produced by Columbia was titled. When Joplin’s manager wrote to Southern Comfort suggesting they compensate the singer for the free publicity, she received a lynx coat (Echols 200). Joplin would begin methadone, then drink to keep from shooting, then go back on heroin to keep from staying in a drunken stupor, worrying friends that she was wasting her life away. Like Smith, Joplin delighted in shocking people, and her sexuality has also been defined as excessive. Joplin recorded songs with titles reflecting the vacillations of her love and desires, songs with titles like “My Baby,” “Cry Baby,” “Bye, Bye Baby,” and even “Maybe.” Sam Andrew, a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Kozmic Blues Band, and Full Tilt Boogie, rhetorically asks, “Was Janis gay, bi, or heterosexual?” answering, “I think she was pan-sexual. There was [a] phrase at the time: if it moves, fondle it. That about sums it up” (Andrew). Or, as Joplin sang,

Don’t you know when you’re loving anybody, baby

You’re taking a gamble on a little sorrow, but then who cares baby

‘Cause we may not be here tomorrow. And if anybody should come along

And is gonna give you a little love and affection.

I say, “Get it while you can.” (“Get It While You Can”)

In many regards, Smith and Joplin embodied the very stereotypes continually (and negatively) associated with bisexuality–promiscuity, fickleness, lack of commitment, unpredictability, and illicit disregard for consistent or constant same-sex and/or different-sex identifications. (2) In some circles, Smith and Joplin would be rejected as cultural, sexual icons for perpetuating the myths and misnomers, the so-called falsities and misunderstandings, about bisexuality. Indeed, Smith and Joplin would not probably stand the test of bisexual virtuosity, of bisexual commitment, or even of bisexual politicism. In other words, they were not paragons of bisexuality, nor were they ideal models for those seeking visible, or invisible, bisexual assimilation into heterosexual or queer communities. It is important to ask, though, what becomes repressed within this paragon or model of bisexual identity? For some people, Smith and Joplin would represent “spoiled identities”: (3) not straight, not gay, homosexually enthralled, heterosexually driven, heterosexually enthralled, homosexually driven, in-between, but really nowhere. Even for some bisexuals, Smith and Joplin would represent “spoiled identities”: too lusty, too lascivious, too promiscuous, too polyamorous, too sexual, too, too, too. In models of bisexuality, which emphasize identity while de-emphasizing sexuality, licentiousness itself becomes the place of a “spoiled identity” within bisexuality and bisexual politics. I think, though, that it is possible, even desirable, to recuperate such “spoiled identities.” Doing so reconfigures and rethinks bisexuality in ways that make sex acts visible without inexorably inscribing identity onto sex acts qua sex acts as typologies of sexuality. The lives of Smith and Joplin and the theoretical lenses of performance and performativity–here, of blues and bisexuality–offer challenging ideas for thinking about bisexual politics, identification, sex, and even “spoiled identities.”

Against reading “straight,” I propose a theorization of bisexuality through blues performances. This reading problematizes straight autobiographical reading, moving toward a consideration of how blues music, blues performances, and blues singing forged an ambivalent, fluctuating sense of racial-sexual identity for each performer. In my readings of blues and bisexuality, I read blues lyrics against the heterosexual grain, examining the cross-gendered and multiply sexually coded performances of Smith, and later, of Joplin. In doing so, I problematize normalizing theorizations of bisexuality–in relation to heterosexuality or to homosexuality–that erase the multiple, often contradictory, sex acts, movements, desires, and bisexual performances that can never be fully coded as one, or the other.

Bi-Os: Bessie and Janis

Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894, although some say 1896, others 1898. (4) Smith’s birth, like her life, it seems, confounds certainty and confuses categorical definition. Born to Laura Smith, who died when her daughter was seven years old, and William Smith, a Baptist minister, who died before she turned nine, Smith was one of seven children in the family. As a young girl, Smith sang on the corner of Ninth Street in Chattanooga for pennies, later joining the Moses Stokes Traveling Show as a dancer in 1912 when Ma and Pa Rainey were part of the troupe. From 1912 to 1921, Smith traveled across the South performing, singing, and dancing before black and white audiences. In 1918, Smith appeared in her own show, Liberty Belles Revue, at 91 Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, performing often as a male impersonator. (5) She began traveling and touring in the North in 1921, appearing in Philadelphia in a musical comedy called How Come at Dunbar Theater. Ironically, her audiences in the North, unlike those in the South, were almost exclusively black; additionally ironic, of course, is that although the North allowed Smith intercity and social freedom of movement not available to her in the segregated South, Smith always preferred the rough rawness of the South to what she referred to as the elitism and pomposity of the North, and the North seemed to prefer the sophistication of singers like Ethel Waters and Mamie Smith to Smith’s roughness (Albertson Bessie, Bessie Smith; Feinstein; Jones; Kay). (6)

In 1923, in fact, Smith was denied a recording contract with Okeh Records for being “too rough” (Jones 49). “The blues as she [Smith] sang them,” writes Hettie Jones in Big Star Fallin” Mama, “were considered low-down and dirty, ‘lower class’ to the respectable, ‘devil music’ to the religious” (48). Smith was also rejected by Black Swan Records (which advertised itself as “The Only Genuine Colored Record,” adding that “Others are Only Passing for Colored”), after interrupting a recording session by saying, “Hold on, let me spit!” (Jones 48). Quite fortuitously, however, she signed with Columbia Records the same year, recording “Down Hearted Blues,” one of her most famous songs, which sold a record-breaking 780,000 copies. In the wake of such success, Smith recorded “St. Louis Blues,” a W. C. Handy song, in 1925 with Louis Armstrong, and four years later, Smith starred in the seventeen-minute film St. Louis Blues, based on Handy’s song. In 1929, she also recorded her signature song, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” She recorded with Columbia from 1923 until 1931, when the onset of the Depression caused a decline in blues recordings; in total, Smith recorded 160 songs with Columbia Records. In 1933, she signed with Okeh Records, which had earlier rejected her, and recorded other well-known and sexually charged songs including “Gimme a Pigfoot” and “Take Me for a Buggy Ride” (later released on Columbia’s The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith). Her career waned throughout the Depression and the 1930s, although she still toured with her own show, the Bessie Smith Revue, from 1930 to 1937, before dying tragically and scandalously in an automobile accident on September 26, 1937. Although the actual events are obscure, or perhaps were locally suppressed, legend holds that Smith was denied treatment at a white hospital in Mississippi and that she bled to death en route to a black hospital in the area. Bessie Smith was buried eight days later on October 4, 1937.

Two states over and six years later, in 1943, Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas–an oil refinery town that is “bayou country, swampy, fetid, really more Louisiana than Texas” (Andrew)–in the midst of World War II. As a child, Joplin was precocious, artistic, and adored by her parents Seth and Dorothy Joplin, though particularly doted on by her mother. (7) She was the oldest of three children–her sister Laura was born when Joplin was six, and her brother Michael when she was ten. According to biographers, friends, and family members, Joplin felt isolated, alienated, and different from the other students at Thomas Jefferson High School, until she became friends with a group of intellectuals who defined themselves as the local “beatniks” after reading about Jack Kerouac and the Beats in Time magazine in 1958. After graduation, Joplin began singing folk songs in coffee houses in Houston from 1960 to 1961, before enrolling in Fine Arts at the University of Texas-Austin in 1962, moving into Austin’s beat neighborhood, called “The Ghetto,” and performing regularly at a place called Threadgill’s. According to rumor and legend (some say started by Joplin herself), Joplin left Austin after being voted “The Ugliest Man on Campus” (Echols 64-65; Friedman 40). In 1963, Joplin hitchhiked to San Francisco with friend Chet Helms, and it was during this year that Joplin made the North Beach scene singing old Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith tunes and met a group of friends (including David Crosby, Nick Gravenites, Peter Albin, and Jim Gurley), who became significant figures in her own musical trajectory, as well as that of the country. She spent 1964 and 1965 drifting, from North Beach to New York, back to San Francisco, then finally back to Port Arthur to “go straight, swear off speed, and get married” (Echols 89). It was a final, and failed, such attempt (Amburn; Echols; Friedman).

She returned to the Bay Area in 1966 to join Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the rest is musical history. After the band’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, the band signed a management contract with Albert Grossman (manager of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Band), which led to a recording contract with Columbia Records a few months later. Cheap Thrills was recorded in 1968 and released in August of that year. After splitting with Big Brother, Kozmic Blues was recorded and released in November 1969. Her final album, Pearl, recorded with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, was still in the works when Joplin died in October 1970, and it was released posthumously to great critical and popular success.

Bessie and her lovers

Bessie Smith was married twice (first to Earl Love in 1920, ending when he died a year later; and second to Jack Gee in 1923, an on-again, off-again, volatile and violent marriage). Smith was also involved in a so-called straight relationship with Chicago bootlegger Richard Morgan in the final years of her life. However, Smith’s loves and her life–in more conventional terms, her “love life”–defied the conventions of marital heterosexuality: her sexual and amorous affiliations were many and were often queer. In straight terms, she was philandering, infidelitous, unreliable, unfaithful, and perverse; in queer terms, Smith enjoyed the pleasures, often at a personal great cost, of men, women, teenage girls, buffet flats, gay sex shows, and whatever else enticed her. (Although neither heterosexuality nor queer sexuality is as monolithic as my simplified–perhaps hyperbolized–definition appears, the fact that bisexuality occupies a liminal, deeply ambivalent space in relation to discourses of both is indisputable.) Smith had a long and close relationship with Ruby Walker, niece of Jack Gee, her second husband; she also had extended, passionate, and open sexual relationships with two girls in her dancing entourage, Lilian and Marie; as to her casual affairs, the names and numbers exceed memory and biographical research (Albertson Bessie 117-26).

Smith married Jack Gee in 1923, the same year that she met his niece Ruby Walker, and these two relationships were the most important ones in her life. Smith spent most of her time on the road with Walker, although Gee frequented the cities that Smith toured, often showing up in just in time to find her in the arms of another. Walker, who always traveled with Smith, was her closest companion, and Gee’s niece went to heroic efforts to conceal Smith’s wild life from her uncle. In interviews with Chris Albertson (included on the fifth volume of The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith, “The Final Chapter”), Walker told Albertson, “I got tired of getting beat up on account of Bessie and all of her dirt” (Albertson “Ruby”). Walker also claimed, “The whole show was scared of Jack” (Kay 48). Smith had a volatile, even violent, relationship with Gee, who often beat her for what he regarded as her sexual transgressions. Once, after finding Smith in bed with Marie, Gee hollered, “Bessie, come out here, you bitch; I’m going to kill you tonight” (Albertson “Ruby”). Biographer Jackie Kay explains that, although the relationship only lasted for six years, Smith was obsessed with Gee for many more, adding that they “were addicted to each other,” although “totally incompatible”: “Bessie was a big drinker; Jack was teetotal. Bessie was wildly sociable; Jack was antisocial. Bessie liked wild parties; Jack hated them. Bessie was generous with her money; Jack was mean. Bessie was talented; Jack was not” (Kay 48).

Kay’s distinction, though harsh, has other voices seconding it. Although Gee took credit for managing Bessie Smith’s tours and for some of the songs Smith performed, most biographers agree that Gee’s professional role was nominal only. Even Gee’s authorship of the songs he ostensibly wrote has been questioned, most musical scholars agreeing that Smith was most likely the real songwriter. When Smith and Gee separated in 1929, she was heartbroken and wept openly with Ruby Walker, a rare emotional display of sadness for a woman prone to outrageous laughter, happy banter, and even raucous fist-fighting; however, the heartache was cemented in Walker’s abandonment of Smith. The niece Ruby left with her uncle Jack, just as she had come with him–loyal to the end, but not to the “Empress of the Blues.” Kay also asks, “Did she marry a man because she feared her own lesbianism? Did she marry Jack because she wanted somebody to keep her in order, to make rules and stop her from drinking?” (Kay 90).

Certainly many women, and men, masked their homosexual desires under the cloaks of marital bliss; however, this possibility seems less likely for Smith, who was openly bisexual (i.e., open about her same-sex desires) in a period when homosexuality was obviously censured, though common, even celebrated, in many circles of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movement of the 1920s and 1930s. In Harlem, as in Paris, and elsewhere in the 1920s–with lesbian, gay, and bisexual performers, artists, musicians, and writers, such as Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker, Gladys Bentley, Alberta Hunter, Gladys Ferguson, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes–queer sexuality formed one backdrop to black aesthetics. Drawing on lesbian historical scholarship by Lilian Faderman, Marjorie Garber explains that:

the racy, creative, deliberately provocative and permissive culture

that was both the image and the reality of the Harlem Renaissance

was … remarkable in the omnipresence of bisexual entertainers,

writers, artists, tourists, and hangers-on. It was a bisexual

culture in the aesthetic as well as the anthropological or

subcultural sense of the words. (Garber 121)

Biographies of Bessie Smith include accounts by Ruby Walker, who remembers postperformance parties that involved open sexual performances, with Smith urging one lover named Marie, half-dressed, half-undressed in “red pajamas” to “show your stuff” (Albertson Bessie 123). In fact, Smith was notorious for insisting on public displays of affection and sexuality, and could cruelly treat lovers who scorned such affection. After lover Lilian Simpson rejected her public kisses, Smith said, “to hell with you bitch; I’ve got twelve women on this show, and I can have one every night, if I want to” (Albertson “Ruby”), and refused to sleep with her until the girl attempted suicide; after the incident, Smith never scorned Lilian, and Lilian never refused Smith’s caresses (Albertson Bessie 120-22). “After that she never cared where Bessie kissed her,” Walker says (Albertson “Ruby”). Even Kay maintains that after her marriage with Jack Gee ended, Smith would have been free to choose sexual relations exclusively with women, yet “she continued to have involvements with both sexes, to ‘swing’ both ways,” adding that “it wasn’t just jazz that could swing” (Kay 90).

Smith had an equally intense, passionate relationship with Walker, whom the performer adored and relied on. Several biographers have referred to Smith’s relationship with Ruby Walker as asexual, but romantic and emotionally intense. “As far as we know,” Kay writes, “Bessie Smith never had sex with Ruby, though their relationship has all the complexity of a sexual one” (Kay 80). Such assertions, however, are contradicted in Chris Albertson’s recorded interviews with Ruby Walker. In these interviews, Walker openly denied her own bisexuality, despite speaking freely about different sexual affairs with women. Once when Lilian Simpson asked her if she had been with a woman, Walker said no, and Simpson told her that “she didn’t know what she was missing” (Albertson “Ruby”). At a buffet flat in Detroit, on a bed covered with furs, Walker told Albertson how “a white gal had messed with me, and it was the prettiest white chick you ever laid your eyes on, child, and when I say that, I mean real fine; and that chick fixed me up for good, and then I had the nerve to get shame after it was over.” Walker also recounted an incident in New Orleans when Smith was “high,” and told her, “come on in here with that high pussy.” She confessed to Albertson an intense sexual encounter with Smith and the first time she saw Bessie’s “ole, big fat pussy.” According to Walker, while the two women were having sex, Smith said “that’s the best pussy I ever had.” Afterwards, Walker said, “Oh, I was so shamed.” Smith felt differently, telling Walker that her feelings were so intense that “I’ll forget all about you’re Jack’s niece.” (8)

One biographer writes, “I like to imagine that Bessie’s great love of her life was Ruby Walker. I like to think that Ruby on the road was in love with Bessie all along” (Kay 91). Another biographer writes, “Jack Gee was the greatest love in Bessie’s life” (Feinstein 45). While reading the second biography, I noticed a marginal note penciled in above this passage that reads, “see other book,” revealing that Bessie Smith’s sexuality–perhaps bisexuality itself–is open to interpretation. These readings of Smith’s sexuality further reveal that such interpretations (each biographers’, the anonymous reader’s, and even my own) are invested with desire–our own. Clearly, we infuse our own erotic and amorous desires into our icons, reading and interpreting their loves according to our own.

Janis and her lovers

Janis Joplin was thrice engaged, but never married. At the time of her death, Joplin was in her third engagement, to a 21-year-old man named Seth Morgan, whom she had known for a mere five weeks, although the relationship was (according to friends) exaggerated. Close friends recall Joplin’s oft-stated wish for a little house, a white picket fence, and children; Joplin’s life, however, defied such stated wishes, and when she periodically returned to her hometown of Port Arthur, her spirit, her personality, and her charisma died. She was happier, it seems, in the counterculture worlds of Haight and Ashbury, although even these districts were notoriously “straight,” with Joplin frequently traveling into the Castro district and other queer neighborhoods of San Francisco. Her sexual liaisons were many, most notably, with Jim Morrison, Joe Namath, Kris Kristoffersen, and, according to rumor, Jimi Hendrix (Echols 179); but also with lesser-known lovers such as Julie Paul, Jae Whitaker, Peggy Caserta, David Niehaus, Kim Chappell, and Milan Melvin (Amburn; Echols; Friedman).

In Austin, Texas, in the early 1960s, college and drop-out friends alike remember a Joplin openly and unapologetically bisexual; in the Bay Area, from the mid-1960s until her death in 1970, friends and acquaintances recall a flamboyantly–if not aggressively–heterosexual Joplin, while closer friends recall an anything-goes, experimental Joplin creating her own personal sexual revolution. Joplin, it seems, shared her sexual exploits selectively–straight with those who were straight (or worse, homophobic) and queer with those who were queer, or at least not averse. Joplin’s sexual identification, though, seems to have been inscribed–at least publicly–as heterosexually defined, despite her bisexual exploits and her numerous sexual encounters with women and men; throughout her career, she never denied her sexual desire for women, as well as for men, but she clearly resisted being labeled a lesbian, although she was outed by Jill Johnston, who wrote “We know Janis was gay” (Echols 307) in Village Voice shortly after her death. Joplin’s resistance to queer identification has been variously described as internalized homophobia, fear of personal and public rejection, and the desire to cultivate a boozin’, ballin’, shootin’, and fuckin’ image. In the summer before her death, Richard Hungden recalls Joplin saying, “I hear a rumor that somebody in San Francisco is spreading stories that I’m a dyke” (Friedman 235). Half ranting, half drunk, half cackling as only Joplin could cackle, she added, “You fly up there tomorrow and tell this bitch” (Echols 251) that “Janis says she’s gotten it on with a couple thousand cats in her life and a few hundred chicks and see what they can do with that!” (Friedman 235). Hungden adds that he saw this as Joplin’s odd “way of proving she was straight” (Echols 251). It seems as if just as many people needed Joplin to be straight as desired her to be gay, but what exactly did Joplin mean by that inscrutable “that!”?

Alice Echols describes Joplin as a “throwback to an earlier bohemian model of sexual ambiguity” (307). However, Echols has a tendency to pathologize Joplin’s sexuality as “sexual confusion” in her biography Sweet Scars of Paradise, writing that “disguising one addiction by broadcasting another was a diversionary tactic Janis applied to other areas of her life, not just heroin and booze” and adding that Joplin “concealed her feelings for women … by endlessly drawing attention to her insatiable heterosexual appetite” (256, 250). (9) Ironically, Echols claims that “in contrast to other of her [Joplin’s] biographers, I don’t pathologize or normalize Janis or make her over into a true lesbian” (xviii). Echols’s own language of addiction and excess, drug abuse and sex, does precisely what she disavows–pathologizes Joplin’s sexuality. One might also ask Echols what she means by a “true lesbian” (xviii). Perhaps bisexuality as a liminal sexual site between clear heterosexual and homosexual identification is inconceivable to Echols. While it is certainly true that Joplin advertised her opposite-sex-capades in the media, and publicly professed insatiability, it is not true that she concealed her feelings for women. Echols’s own biography contradicts such an assertion at several points. In an interview with Linda Gravenites, Echols asked if “Janis found it difficult dealing with her feelings for women,” implying, of course, that Echols herself imagines it to be difficult. Gravenites responds, “Oh! She dealt with them all right. Like with Peggy [Caserta], ‘Oh God, Peggy has the most gorgeous tits in the world!,’ Linda mimics Janis” (Echols 251). Indeed, in the final years of her life, Joplin had grown more and more overt in her bisexuality—even publicly and even at a time when public demonstration brought much public censure. As if to acknowledge her own pathologizing move, Echols apologetically qualifies her earlier sentence:

Drug abuse and homosexuality are often mentioned in the same breath,

as though they are equivalent evidence of an underlying pathology.

Janis’s habit and her “queerness” are linked here only because in

both cases she mounted rather elaborate masquerades to disguise

behavior that must have felt somehow shameful to her. (251)

Despite the apologetic tone, Echols’s statements further pathologize Joplin’s sexuality, coding it (like her heroin habit) as something “shameful” to “conceal.” Myra Friedman, a friend to Joplin and assistant to Albert Grossman, also pathologizes Joplin’s sexuality–not as “queer,” but as “bisexual.” According to Friedman, Joplin lacked the maturity necessary for coherent sexual identification, heterosexual or homosexual. In Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin, Friedman writes:

To become homosexual, to make the choice that one honestly prefers

relations with one’s own sex, no matter the origins of such

preference, requires a certain integration, a stability of psychic

development, a tidiness of personality organization…. Janis was

not heir to an ego so cohesive as to permit her an identity one way

or the other. (Friedman 62-63)

Friedman’s attempt to explain Joplin’s sexual proclivities not only pathologizes her sexuality as excessive, as addiction, but also suggests its etiology in psychic instability, arrested emotional (and thus sexual) development. According to Friedman’s psychoanalytic interpretation, then, Joplin lacks the psychic integrity to be heterosexual or to become homosexual, or vice versa.

The pathologization of Joplin’s sexuality by some of her biographers is clearly linked to her on-again, off-again, sex-and-smack affair with Peggy Caserta, who told Echols, “we’d fix and fuck the night away” (Echols 253). A 1973 memoir coauthored by Peggy Caserta with Dan Knapp, Going Down With Janis, opens with the line, “I was stark naked, stoned out of my mind on heroin, and the girl lying between my legs giving me head was Janis Joplin” (7). (10) In an interview with Echols, Caserta attributes the salacious first line to Knapp, complaining, “I’ve had to live under the shadow of that book’s first fucking line for over thirty years” (Echols 253). Friedman claims that Caserta overemphasized her importance in Joplin’s life, describing Caserta as a hang-around user with little significance in Joplin’s emotional life, dismissing Caserta’s claims to have loved Joplin, and denying that love “can thrive in a context like that” (305). Other biographers disagree, describing Caserta as a long and important sexual and emotional, if also addicted amorous relationship in Joplin’s life. Lovers for at least two-and-a-half years, far longer than most of her relationships with men, Joplin met Caserta in the Fall of 1966; Caserta was with her at Monterey Pop in 1968, and at Woodstock in 1969, where she grabbed Peggy’s breast right in front of a group of reporters; and Joplin had plans to meet with her fiance Seth Morgan and Caserta on the night of her death.

Biographical pathologization of Joplin’s sexuality also seems linked to selective emphasis, focusing prominently on Joplin’s fatal relationship with heroin and Caserta, while minimizing other less volatile relationships. For example, Joplin also had a long-term, same-sex, interracial, and stabilizing relationship with Jae Whitaker in the early 1960s, initiated shortly after arriving in North Beach from Austin with Chet Helms. Joplin met Whitaker in the spring of 1963 at a North Beach gay bar called Gino and Carlo’s; two months later, Joplin moved in with her, and the two lived together until early 1964, although the relationship continued until shortly before Joplin’s first engagement. Joplin’s sexual and amorous relationship with Whitaker, described by Echols as her “most sustained relationship” (Echols 85), lasted for two years, although they remained friends until Joplin’s death. Whitaker was affectionate, constant, and nurturing, but Joplin ultimately resisted such relationships with both women and men, preferring downhearted, mistreating lovers. “Whenever Janis was faced with a tender, considerate lover,” Echols writes, “she’d respond by radiating ambivalence” (Echols 86). Joplin’s and Smith’s sexualities, then, perhaps like bisexuality itself as a category of sexual identification, seem open for interpretation. In my own readings of bisexuality in the lives and music of these two performers, I examine the racialization of sexuality, the sexualization of race, and the mapping of bisexual desires through Smith’s and Joplin’s blues performances.

Musical performances … blacks, whites, blues, and bisexualities

According to Houston A. Baker, Jr., the blues crossroads is a “polymorphous and multidirectional” juncture mapping “blues geographies,” a conjuncture that represents a subject in “ceaseless flux,” marked by “arrivals and departures,” a subject “betwixt and between,” rather than “a filled subject” that assumes a fixed positionality (Modernism 7). (11) The “blues crossroads,” the “blues geographies,” mapped a musical and historical matrix for understanding African-American identity in the twentieth century. In the first chapter of The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explores the connections between voodoo, hoodoo, conjure, and the blues. This connection is especially prominent in the songs of Bessie Smith and in songs and legends about Robert Johnson: within classical blues songs, particularly early blues with southern roots, the devil was associated with the figure of the trickster–Legba in hoodoo, or Elegua in Yoruban religions (Davis 6). Legba’s symbol is the cross, as he mediates between the sacred and the secular worlds; Legba, an androgynous figure associated with sexuality, is also the god of the crossroads (Gates 6), evoking Baker’s discussion of the “blues crossroads.”

Blues music as a genre and blues performativity as a cultural art-form are rooted in African-American historical experience. “The historical context within which the blues developed a tradition of openly addressing both female and male sexuality,” Angela Davis writes in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, “reveals an ideological framework that was specifically African-American” (5). The commodification of black bodies and black sexuality and the “economic management of procreation” under slavery prohibited sexual autonomy and individualistic expression. Blues, emergent as a “postslavery African-American musical form,” diverged from slavery-era musical forms that reflected antienslavement social and collective consciousness; unlike slave music and spirituals, blues “articulated a new valuation of individual emotional needs and desires” (Davis 5). While political disenfranchisement and economic oppression persisted in the postemancipation period, emancipation radically transformed African Americans’ lives, Davis argues, in three respects: freedom of individual movement; educational opportunities; and autonomy in sexual relations. “The new blues consciousness,” Davis writes, “was shaped by and gave expression to at least two of these three transformations: travel and sexuality” (8). While travel was more restricted for women, “blues women overcame this restriction” (8). Smith, in fact, purchased a lavish persona] railroad car, custom made for her by the Southern Iron and Equipment Company in Atlanta, “painted bright yellow with green lettering” (Kay 81). The railcar was 78 feet long and two stories high, with seven staterooms and large enough to house 35 people on tour. More importantly, the railcar allowed Smith the freedom to travel throughout the South, the Northeast, and the Midwest without facing segregation and discrimination, and the luxury of having a place to sleep without worrying about racial discrimination. The blues, as a musical genre and as a performed cultural art form, opened new spaces of travel and autonomy not only for women, but also for queer artists, musicians, and writers.

Josh Kun persuasively argues in “Life According to the Beat: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, and the Perilous Sounds of Love” that one intersection in the “blues crossroads” marks for queer listeners such as Baldwin, Isaac Julien, and others “the emergent, audible site of identity as a matrix–a ‘blues matrix’–of racial and sexual intersectionality that maps out new and quite different ‘blues geographies'” (313). In an interview with the late Essex Hemphill, Isaac Julien states that “blues is very important in relationship to black culture and specifically in relationship to black gay identities because blues songs were some of the first spaces where one could actually hear black gay desire” (Hemphill 179, emphasis added). The blues offered an audible, if not always heard, site for mapping queerness within blackness. James Baldwin also negotiated the interrelations of blackness and queerness by listening to Bessie Smith’s blues recordings (a repressed site within his own queer African-American identity). In his essay “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” Baldwin writes that “armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter, I began to try to re-create the life I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight” (5). For Baldwin, Smith’s blues evoked childhood, pain, racism, and blackness in America:

It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped

me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a

pickaninny, and to remember the things I had heard and seen and

felt. I had buried them very deep. (Baldwin 5, emphasis added)

In Switzerland, “that absolutely alabaster landscape,” Baldwin returned to the “blues-black matrix” that was his America, explaining, “I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that for years I would not touch a watermelon)” (5). According to Kun, Baldwin

continually identified with her fierceness, her toughness, her

celebration of her body, her open bisexuality, her pain, her

triumph over poverty, and ultimately, as he declared in his

1959 review of Porgy and Bess, her freedom–her ability to escape

the world’s definitions and be that rare, unattainable thing:

herself. (Kun 317)

As an expatriate, Baldwin could hear the sounds of his own queer blackness, stating “Bessie had the beat…. It’s that tone, that sound, which is in me” (Terkel, quoted in Kun 313). How are we to read Baldwin’s statement–“that tone, that sound, which is in me”? An immediate interpretation of Baldwin’s words comes to mind–“that tone” as racially coded, and surely, within the history of the blues and blues performativity such an interpretation is an important one. But “that tone, that sound, that beat” is also sexually coded, and the sexual coding of “that tone, that sound, that beat” is formative in racial-sexual identity formation. Rather than positioning “that tone, that sound, that beat” as essential–primary, rooted–it is possible, indeed fruitful, to read “that tone, that sound, that beat” as formative, constitutive, secondary (in the sense of constructed). This reading makes a profound difference with respect to performances of sexuality and race, the racialization of sexuality, and the sexualization of race. In theorizing these possibilities, I emphasize and underscore the word “that,” recalling Joplin’s own words to the journalists who outed her as a lesbian, “see what they can do with that!” Although I would resist Joplin’s resistance to lesbian identification, the question of the sexual “thatness” of bisexuality–in Smith’s life, in Joplin’s life, in general–is an important one.

Problematics of reading straight

Black working-class communities, Davis asserts, celebrated the image of blues women who deviated “from the norms defining orthodox female behavior” (38); within such a working-class nomenclature, Ida Cox’s “wild woman,” as represented in “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” became “virtually synonymous with the blues queen herself” (38). Songs by Bessie Smith, such as “Easy Come, Easy Go Blues,” explore open sexuality, proclaiming “If my sweetman trifles, or if he don’t/I’ll get someone to love me anytime he won’t” (Davis 39). Within such blues nomenclature, references to “daddy,” “papa,” and “old man” (a linguistic nomenclature later adopted by Janis Joplin), obscure marital status, and such appellations were also used cross-gender to refer to women or female lovers. Davis explains that “African-American working-class argot refers to both husbands and male lovers–and even in some cases female lovers–as ‘my man’ or ‘my daddy'” (Davis 13). This cross-gender and cross-sexual play also entered into Smith’s performances, where she often substituted female pronouns for male ones in songs such as “Downhearted Blues,” according to Steve Watson in The Harlem Renaissance. Hazel Carby has also argued that the blues allowed women to explore “the various possibilities of a sexual existence” (232).

Jackie Kay argues that “Bessie Smith’s blues tell the story of her life better than biography or autobiography ever could,” that “her blues are autobiography” (Kay 113). Focusing on the first-person narrative voice of blues lyrics, Kay asserts that Bessie’s songs are “the key to understanding the complex personality of Bessie Smith” (113). It is problematic, however, to read blues lyrics autobiographically, without complex interpretation of blues performativity: many of the songs were written and performed by Smith; many were written by others and performed by Smith. Within blues-writing and blues-performing, what are the roles of performativity, cross-identification, irony, sexually-coded humor, and insinuation? This autobiographical problematic is painfully clear in Kay’s own reading of Smith’s lyrics with regard to sexuality: “Homosexuality,” Kay writes, “is seen as something puzzling and strange in ‘Foolish Man Blues’, and apart from that song there is hardly a reference to her own bisexuality in any of her other blues” (89). Even more problematically, Edward Brooks writes, “The words of Foolish Man Blues … express dislike for effeminate men. Possibly they were prompted by her professional association with Porter Grainger, a homosexual” (131-32).

In “Foolish Man Blues,” the only song written or performed by Bessie Smith that openly and overtly alludes to queer sexuality (although many others are queerly coded), Smith writes, “There’s two things got me puzzled, there’s two things I can’t understand/[…] That’s a mannish actin’ woman and a skippin’, twistin’, woman actin’ man.” Such lyrics cannot be read literally or straight. Smith, performing drag as early as 1918 when she was in her early twenties, was clearly a “mannish actin’ woman.” Newspaper articles in 1925 also rumored a sexual liaison between Smith and Gladys Ferguson, another male impersonator and performer (Garber 119). “Foolish Man Blues” acquired a queer, cult-like code in this period, alluded to both in George Hannah’s “Freakish Man Blues” (a song that opens with the line, “Call me a freakish man”) (Kun 322, 328 n. 42) and in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, in which the protagonist Jake, a railcar cook, questions the Haitian railcar waiter Ray, whom everyone calls “Professor,” about the book he is reading, Alphonse Daudet’s Sapho (McKay 129). Ray tells Jake that Sapho introduced two beautiful words into modern languages, “sapphic and lesbian” (129). Jake then refers to the common term “bulldyker” and hums a Harlem version of Smith’s song: “And there is two things in Harlem I don’t understan’/It is a bulldyking woman and a faggoty man …” (McKay 129). As Garber explains, “Foolish Man Blues” poses a “disingenuous ‘puzzle’ to which she clearly had some answers for the ‘two things’ she claims not to understand” (119).

The “blues matrix,” in fact, defies straight reading. Rather, the blues are, as Baker theorizes, “polymorphous,” “multidirectional,” and performative (Modernism 7). For Baker, the blues “singer and song never arrest transience,” and “the singer’s product, like the railway juncture … constitutes a lively scene, a robust matrix, where endless antinomies are mediated” (Modernism 7). Smith’s blues performances exemplify these ideas. In Smith’s 1927 recording of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in Old Town Tonight,” a song written by T. Metz in 1896 to advertise the McIntyre and Heath Minstrel Show in Old Town, Louisiana (Brooks 121-22), Smith performs provocative transgender desires, a blues woman singing of sexual love for a woman: “There’ll be girls for everybody in this good good old town/There’s Miss Gonzola Davis and Miss Gondula Brown/There’s Miss Henrietta Beezer and she’s all dressed in red/I just hugged her and kissed her and to me then she said…” In the next words and lines of the song’s lyrics, Smith sings of Henrietta’s professed desire for the singer, whom she calls “my man”: “‘Please, oh, please, oh, do not let me fall/You are mine and I love you best of all/You’ll be my man, or I’ll have no man at all.'” (12) In Smith’s performance, of course, it is a woman desiring a woman to be her “man.” The stanza ends, “There’ll be a hot time in old town tonight.” Smith traversed racial, gender, and sexual borders in other performances as well.

Photographed for posterity, Smith loved the camera, it seems, as much as it loved her, but most of the photographs of Smith show her in satin dresses, feathers, fur, horse-hair wigs, revealing a feminine–if artificial–Smith; few photographs reveal the other sides of Smith, the Smith who donned men’s tuxedoes and performed as a male impersonator, an early drag king, in her own coy words, a “mannish actin’ woman.” (13) According to Josh Kun, “Smith was as famous for her elaborate headdresses and feathers, sequined gowns, costumes of red and blue satin, pearl necklaces and fake rubies as she was for her ‘mannish ways’ and bisexual desires” (316). Promoted by Columbia as “Queen of the Blues,” she was popularly known as “Empress of the Blues,” but Ruby Walker says that

Bessie was a queen. I mean, the people look up to her and worshipped

her like she was a queen. You know, she would walk into a room or

out on a stage and people couldn’t help but notice her–she was that

kind of woman, a strong, beautiful woman with a personality as big

as a house. (Kay 65)

Describing her as “the poor girl from Chattanooga [who] can put on a silk gown and transform herself into an Empress,” Kay refers to Smith as a

black working-class Queen…. A Queen who knows how to shimmy. A

Queen who can send herself up. A Queen who can holler and shout.

A Queen who knows what it is all about. A Queen of Tragedy; a

Queen of Bad Men; a Queen of Poverty; a Queen of the

jailhouse…. A Queen of the Folk. (Kay 65)

Queen. Queen. Bessie Smith was also a “king of the blues,” or a King/Queen who performed cross-gender and bisexual blues. Buffet flats, frequented by Smith and her troupe, offered erotic and performative spaces for queer–cross-gender and cross-sexual–desires. Ruby Walker’s interviews with Chris Albertson recount memories from a buffet flat in Detroit: in her account, Walker laughingly recalls wild sex parties and performances (Albertson “Ruby”). Buffet flats allowed for cross-gender and cross-sexual eroticism, where straight women got hot watching gay sex and queer women acted out male desires (and vice versa). Such role reversal was also an integral aspect of Smith’s blues performativity. Josh Kun writes:

Smith was the dame of an era of transvestism, sexual exploration,

and rampant gender-bending; one that was populated by stage after

stage and rent party after rent party of, as “Foolish Man Blues”

puts it, “mannish-acting women” and “skipping, twistin’ woman

acting men”. (323)

As for Janis Joplin: “Like her idol Bessie Smith,” biographer Alice Echols writes, “[Janis was] the very embodiment of the ‘dynamic of reversal’ so central to the blues” (xiv). Echols also argues that Joplin “undermined the color line by subverting notions of white sexual restraint and black promiscuity” (xvii), and, unlike many other 1960s blues rock artists, Joplin publicly acknowledged her musical ancestors and influences–Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Leadbelly, Willie Mae Thornton, Odetta, and others, as well as contemporary artists whom she admired such as Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. Joplin’s appropriation of black blues music–indeed, the roots of rock music are predominantly African American–is an important question for music historians and scholars. (14) Paul Friedlander writes, “Early rock and roll was primarily African-American music. The syncopated rhythms, raw vocal emotionalism, and work-chant ‘call and response’ are all part of an African musical heritage and became building blocks for rock and roll” (16). David P. Szatmary–who traces the African blues influences in several rock performers (Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, Steve Miller, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Allman Brothers)–notes that “during the late sixties some young, white blues performers raised in the American South delivered a straight-ahead electric blues without psychedelic trappings” (179). According to her sister and biographer Laura Joplin, “Janis wanted to be known as ‘the first black-white person'” (334). Joplin also notes her famous sister’s opposition to southern segregation as early as her high school years. However, Laura Joplin also notes that “the 1960’s demand for racial equity included a cry for black artists to receive … recognition and financial success from their own music,” rather than having “to wait for it to be covered by some more socially palatable white performer” (335). For some artists, Laura Joplin expects, her sister may have been perceived as “just another ‘whitey’ taking from the ‘brothers'” (335). Referring to Joplin as “one of the era’s best white blues singers” (198), Friedlander notes, though, that Joplin was admired by many of her black contemporaries, some of whom resented other rock performers for appropriating black blues forms. According to Friedlander, B. B. King felt that Joplin sang the blues “as hard as any black person” (198).

Influenced by blues music and blues performativity, Joplin’s own blues performances created new spaces for sexual freedom. In Joplin’s own composition “Mary Jane” (a clear reference to marijuana–as many have noted–but also to bisexuality, though few have remarked upon this fact), she sings, “I have known women that wanted no man, / Some that wanted to stay. / But I never knew what happened in this world till I met up with Mary Jane, / Mary Jane, Mary Jane, Lord my Mary Jane.” In Joplin’s performance of other songs, many written by male artists, she also crossed gendered and sexuated lines. Two notable examples include “Walk Right In” (written by Gus Cannon, Hosia Woods, Erik Darling, and Willard Hooker Svanoe), which talks about a “two-way woman,” and “Easy Rider Blues” (written by James Gurley), in which Joplin (a bisexual woman) performs songs (written by men) about love and desire for women. In “Easy Rider Blues,” Joplin sings lines expressing erotic desire: “Well, I got a girl with a diamond ring, I’ll tell you, boys, she knows how to shake that thing.” In “San Francisco Bay Blues,” written by Jesse Fuller, Joplin sings lyrics lamenting a lost female love:

Sittin’ in my back door

Wondering which way to go

That woman I’m so crazy about

She don’t love me no more.

Lord, I think I’ll grab a freight train

Because I’m feeling blue,

Ride all the way to the end of the line

Thinking only about you.

Clearly, the performance of blues songs confounds straight lyrical reference, performing female-female desire through words ostensibly written about male-female lust and love. Blues performativity, thus, makes same-sex desire and sex acts visible within bisexuality without reducing identity to specific sex acts with specifically gender-identified partners. Joplin’s own identification with Smith and with blues performativity, no doubt, gave her access to a language, a genre, and a countercultural gay sexual history–one intersection of the “blues crossroads” mapped by Smith, Ma Rainey, George Hannah, and Porter Grainger, as well as writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, James Baldwin, and others–a queer sexual history that made such bisexual (and white) blues performativity possible.

Bisexual blues performativity, then, diverges from sanitized models of bisexuality that obscure sex acts in bisexual relations for fear of perpetuating myths of promiscuity; bisexual blues performativity allows for cross-gender and cross-sexual desires and identifications wherein performed acts (even those pejoratively labeled “promiscuous”) offer sites for rethinking sex acts in sex relations; finally, bisexual blues performativity makes sex acts, bodily desires, and cross-identifications visible without ineluctably inscribing specific sex acts performed with specifically gendered bodies onto specific sexual identifications.

Bisexual blues performances–while not intrinsically politicized, nor inherently apolitical–remain marked by the cultural, historical, material, and discursive matrices in which such performances are performed, revealing that while sex is gendered, raced, and classed, it is not reducible to such constructions, nor inextricably bound to them.

Race and the “blues crossroads”

So what are the intersections of race and sexuality mapped in the “blues crossroads”? Where are divergences–of race and sexuality–manifest? While not essential (qua essence) to African-American identity, blues grew out of the African-American experience; yet, Smith’s blackness and Joplin’s whiteness offered different racialized sites for blues and bisexual performativity. Smith’s bisexual blues performativity flourished in the Harlem and Black Arts Renaissance not restricted to Harlem, or New York, of course, but traveling across the myriad urban cities and rural towns within America’s borders (through Smith and other black artists and musicians who toured the South, Northeast, and Midwest), as well as in the Black West Indies, Paris noire, and elsewhere. Joplin’s bisexual blues performativity in the 1960s and 1970s, from San Francisco to New York and across the American heartland–though openly counterculture–was less overtly queer. The sexual deviation of the blues in the 1920s, and jazz in later decades, is clearly rooted in a racialized oppression that was also decisively sexual. As Angela Davis discusses in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, the commodification of black bodies and sexualities through the institution of slavery was a totalizing form of racial oppression that operated through sexual control (4-5). Conversely, the counterculture worlds of the 1960s–symbolized in the “Summer of Love,” Woodstock, and Haight-Ashbury–remained positively retro, even traditional, in some respects, especially in terms of gender and sexuality. Despite the dominance of heterosexuality in the “hippie” generation, Joplin broke with the strictures of gender identification and heterosexuality, refusing a narrowly defined “woman’s role” in the straight world, although she contradictorily seemed to embrace this world at other times.

The racialization of sexuality and the sexualization of race, then, impacted the bisexual blues performances of both Smith and Joplin. In the postemancipation period of American history, sexual exploration and deviations from white heteronormative codes represented avenues of personal freedom. This sexual autonomy broke with systems of sexual control in the slavery period, a period in which black sexuality was commodified through heterosexual procreation, even as the heterosexual union of marriage was often disallowed. By the 1960s, however, the codes constructing the racialization of sexuality and the sexualization of race had shifted–with black sexuality defined (and pathologized in white heterosexual discourses) as “promiscuous” and “rapacious”; in her own blues performances, Joplin subverted notions of white and black sexuality, displacing such essentialized notions of race and sexuality.

As a white woman performing the blues, however, Joplin never faced the same historical and racial oppression that Smith did. As a traveling black blues woman in the 1920s and 1930s, Smith’s life, loves, and livelihood were constrained by racist discrimination and the threat of racial violence. Once during an outdoor performance in North Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan surrounded the tent, but Smith singlehandedly confronted the group, asking the sheeted men, “What the luck you think you’re doin’?” before telling them, “I’ll get the whole damn tent out here if I have to. You just pick up them sheets and run!” (Albertson Bessie 133). The Klansmen, shocked, “disappeared into the darkness” (133). The post-Reconstruction era was not only the era of classical blues, but also a period of brutal and massive lynchings in the southern United States with more than 2,500 African Americans lynched between 1882 and 1930 (Tolnay and Beck xi). Ironically, both the popular performances of blues women and the Klan-inspired lynchings diminished after the stockmarket crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, suggesting that such racialized violence stemmed from multiple factors including white power, racial hatred, the economic challenge of free black laborers to white wealth, the suppression of black female autonomy, and the fear of black and queer sexuality that threatened to disrupt the codes of whiteness and heterosexuality.

As in her life, Smith’s death was also marked and marred by racism. Smith died in a car accident in Mississippi in September 1937, but her death and its cause remain mired in controversy. Accounts by her partner Richard Morgan, who was driving the automobile, and her adopted son Jack Gee, Junior, attest that Smith bled to death from an injury to her arm (almost completely severed when the automobile struck the side of a parked truck) after being denied treatment at a white hospital. Official accounts, including one by a white physician who arrived on the scene, deny the verity of such statements, saying that Smith was admitted for treatment at a black hospital, but was already dead on arrival. These events have remained the topic of public controversy, even inspiring a play by Edward Albee entitled The Death of Bessie Smith. While some biographers accept the official documents and the official account of Smith’s death, such acceptance seems selective and certainly not warranted, especially as the reports from her survivors (one of whom was at the accident scene) disagree with the official records. Finally, Smith’s burial eight days later and (coming back full circle to the point at which this paper began) her unmarked grave suggest that blues performativity and the legacies of blues artists remain marked by racial difference, in life as in death.

Bye-bye, baby, bye-bye.

So long, my honey, so long.

Too bad you had to drift away

‘Cause I could use some company

Right here on this road, on this road I’m on today.


(1.) The internal citation to “racial embarrassment” is from Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s.

(2.) The number of critical and theoretical volumes on bisexuality has proliferated since Marjorie Garber’s important 1995 book Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. See the following contributions to theorizations of bisexuality: Firestein; Hall and Pramaggiore; The Off Pink Collective; Bi Academic Intervention; Haeberle and Gindorf; and Storr. See also two volumes based on autobiographical accounts and political manifestoes of bisexuality: Hutchins and Kaahumanu; and Tucker, Highleyman and Kaplan. Two important essays also warrant mention, as they have been instrumental in forging new theorizations of bisexuality in relation to feminist, lesbian and queer politics/ethics/theories–Clare Hemmings’ “Locating Bisexual Identities: Discourses of Bisexuality and Contemporary Feminist Theory”; and Elisabeth D. Daumer’s “Queer Ethics; or, the Challenge of Bisexuality to Lesbian Ethics.”

(3.) In “Divinity: A Dossier, A Performance Piece, A Little-Understood Emotion,” an exchange between Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Moon, Moon explores the notion of a “spoiled identity” as one in which gender inconsistency–and I would add sexual inconsistency–creates sexual stigmatization. For Moon, “the management of spoiled identity simply is where experimental identifies, which is to say any consequential ones, come from” (Sedgwick and Moon 225). Moon adopts the term “spoiled identity” from Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

(4.) Unless otherwise noted by parenthetical citation, the biographical information about Bessie Smith’s life, throughout the paper, has been gleaned from Albertson (Bessie). Many of these biographical facts are reiterated in the biographies of Smith written by Feinstein and Kay.

(5.) Jones (43) identifies the name of the theater as 81 Theater.

(6.) Kay writes, “In the South the blues sold to black and white people; in the more ‘liberal’ North, they just sold to black people. It is possible to have been white in the North in the 1920s and never have known the blues records even existed. This is because in the North, advertising of so-called ‘Race Records’ was restricted to the black press; and the distribution of the records took place only in the black areas. Southerners, though, became part of the ‘race market’. White and black people, though segregated, crowded into those tents to hear the blues” (74).

(7.) Most of the biographical elements of Janis Joplin’s life–included in this section and throughout the entire paper–are well known and well documented in several different biographies, including Amburn; Echols; Friedman; and Joplin. Specific details borrowed from individual biographies are cited parenthetically, especially for information not documented elsewhere or well known.

(8.) All quotes within this paragraph are from Albertson (“Ruby”).

(9.) Bodily and sexual pathologization, of course, is often metaphorically coded as appetite. The adjectives insatiable and voracious only pejoratively code sexuality because these terms themselves are negatively associated with appetite and consumption-and thus, with corpulence. For critiques of the pathologization of corpulence, especially as it overlaps with issues of sexuality and desire, refer to Braziel and LeBesco. In my contribution to that volume, I discuss the imbrications of fatness and sexuality in various cultural media (television, women’s magazines, and pornographic magazines) (Braziel).

(10.) Caserta and Knapp’s book opens with a passage that links Joplin, Caserta, sex, heroin, and emotional deficiency, and other biographers adopt this language of pathology and psychological lack with respect to Joplin’s sexuality. The longer passage is worth quoting here: “I was stark naked, stoned out of my mind on heroin, and the girl lying between my legs giving me head was Janis Joplin. She was stoned blind on smack, too, but the junk flowing through her veins and saturating her brain hadn’t diminished the skill with which she used her mouth on me. If anything, it helped. Janis was always more relaxed, less inhibited, infinitely more capable of affection after a fix than she could ever be when she was sober. Just a little of that bubbly, still-warm, paste-colored fluid was all it took. Heated to a boil in a disposable Pepsi screw cap and drawn into an eye-dropper through a Number-25 needle, administered directly into a tied-off, bulging arm vein through the same glistening instrument, less than a gram of it could accomplish what gallons of Southern Comfort and Tequila couldn’t. For an hour or two, and then in diminishing proportions until the next fix, it freed Janis of that gnawing, deep-down, hollowed-out fear that was never further than a thought away: If she offered herself, she would be rejected. If she loved, she would be hurt” (7).

(11.) For a discussion of “blues geographies,” see Baker (Modernism). My own reading of Baker’s theorization of the “blues crossroads” is indebted to Kun.

(12.) The lyrics from “There’ll Be a Hot Time in Old Town Tonight” (T. Metz) and “Foolish Man Blues” (Bessie Smith), below, are quoted from Davis (280, 346-47).

(13.) For important work on drag kings, see Halberstam (Female and Drag).

(14.) For scholarship on the question of blues influences and appropriations in rock music, see the following sources: Szatmary (1-29, 179-210); Wald; Ward; and Friedlander (15-24).

Works cited

Albee, Edward. The Zoo Story; The Death of Bessie Smith; The Sandbox: Three Plays. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1960; New York: New American Library, 1960.

Aldin, Mary Katherine. “Liner Notes.” 18 Essential Songs by Janis Joplin. CD, Sony/Columbia Records CK 67005, 1995.

Albertson, Chris. Bessie. New York: Stein and Day, 1974.

–. Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues. New York: Collier MacMillan, 1975.

–. “Ruby Walker Dialogue / An Interview with Chris Albertson.” Disc 2 of Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith; “The Final Chapter,” Vol. 5. CD, Columbia Records C2K 57546, 1996. 2 CDs.

Amburn, Ellis. Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin. New York: Time Warner Books, 1992.

Andrew, Sam. “Recollections of Janis: Seen Through the Eyes of Big Brother.” Big Brother and the Holding Company Home Page (January 28, 2001).

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Baldwin, James. “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American.” Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Vintage Books, 1989 [1961], 5-11.

–. In Another Country. New York: Dell, 1988.

–. “A Stranger in the Village.” Notes of a Native Son. New York: Bantam Books, 1968 [1955]. 159-75.

Baraka, Amiri. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: W. Morrow, 1963.

Bi Academic Intervention (Phoebe Davidson, Jo Eadie, Clare Hemmings, Ann Kaloski, and Merl Storr), eds. The Bisexual Imaginary: Representation, Identity and Desire. London, and Washington: Cassell, 1997.

Braziel, Jana Evans. “Sex and Fat Chics? Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body.” Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. Ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco. Berkeley, CA, and London: U of California P, 2001. 231-256.

Braziel, Jana Evans, and Kathleen LeBesco, eds. Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. Berkeley, CA, and London: U of California P, 2001.

Brooks, Edward. The Bessie Smith Companion: A Critical and Detailed Appreciation of the Recordings. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982.

Carby, Hazel. “‘It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime’: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” Gender and Discourse: The Power of Talk. Ed. Alexandra Dundas Todd and Sue Fisher. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1988. 227-42.

Caserta, Peggy, and Dan Knapp. Going Down with Janis. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1973.

Daumer, Elisabeth D. “Queer Ethics; or, the Challenge of Bisexuality to Lesbian Ethics.” Hypatia 7 (1992): 90-105.

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1995.

Echols, Alice. Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin. New York: Henry Holt & Co., Metropolitan Books, 1999.

Faderman, Lilian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th Century America. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

Feinstein, Elaine. Bessie Smith. Viking Books, 1985.

Firestein, Beth A., ed. Bisexuality: The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996.

Friedlander, Paul. Rock and Roll: A Social History. New York: Westview Press, 1996.

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Garber, Marjorie. Vice Versa. Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000 [1995].

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monketl: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Hacker, Marilyn. “Elegy, for Janis Joplin.” The Poetry and Voice of Marilyn Hacker. Made “in Association with the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA, New York.” 33? rpm, stereo, Caedmon TC 1501, 1976.

Haeberle, Erwin J., and Rolf GindorL eds. Bisexualities: The Ideology and Practice of Sexual Contact with Both Men and Women. New York: Continuum, 1998.

Halberstam, Judith. The Drag King Book (photography by Del LaGrace Volcano). New York: Consortium Books, 1999.

–. Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1999.

Hall, Donald E., and Maria Pramaggiore, eds. RePresenting Bisexualities: Subjects and Cultures of Fluid Desire. New York: New York UP, 1996.

Hemmings, Clare. “Locating Bisexual Identities: Discourses of Bisexuality and Contemporary Feminist Theory.” Mapping Desire. Ed. David Bell and Gill Valentine. New York, and London: Routledge, 1995. 41-55.

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The Off Pink Collective (Rose, Sharon, Cris Stevens, et al.), eds. Bisexual Horizons: Politics, Histories, Lives. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1996.

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Wald, Gayle. “One of the Boys? Whiteness, Gender and Popular Music Studies.” Whiteness: A Critical Reader. Ed. Mike Hill. New York: New York UP, 1997. 151-67.

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Songs cited: Janis Joplin

Joplin, Janis. “Bali and Chain” (Willie Mae Thorton). Cheap Thrills. Perf. Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. CD, Columbia Records CK 9700, 1968.

–. “Black Mountain Blues” (H. Cole). Janis. LP, Columbia Records PG 33345, 1975; CD (import), COL 467406-9.

–.”Bye, Bye Baby” (Powell St. John). Big Brother and the Holding Company. Perf. Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Mainstream S/6099, 1967, 1968. CD, US Legacy CK 66425.

–. “Cry Baby” (Jerry Ragovoy and Sam Bell). Pearl. Perf. Janis Joplin with the Full Tilt Boogie Band. CD, Columbia Records CK 30322, 1971.

–. “Easy Rider Blues” (James Gurley). Big Brother and the Holding Company. Perf. Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Mainstream S/6099, 1967, 1968. CD, US Legacy CK 66425.

–. “Get It While You Can” (Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman). Pearl. Perf. Janis Joplin with Full Tilt Boogie. CD, Columbia Records C30322, 1971.

–. “Mary Jane.” Janis. LP, Columbia Records PG 33345, 1975; CD (import), COL 467406-9.

–. “Maybe” (Richard Barrett). I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Perf. Janis Joplin with the Kozmic Blues Band. CD, Columbia Records CK 9913, 1969.

–. “My Baby” (Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman). Pearl. Perf. Janis Joplin with the Full Tilt Boogie Band. CD, Columbia Records CK 30322, 1971.

–. “Trouble in Mind” (Richard Jones). Janis. LP, Columbia Records PG 33345, 1975; CD (import), COL 467406-9.

–. “San Francisco Bay Blues” (Jesse Fuller). Janis. LP, Columbia Records PG 33345, 1975; CD (import), COL 467406-9.

–. “See See Rider” (Gertrude “Ma” Rainey). Janis. LP, Columbia Records PG 33345, 1975; CD (import), COL 467406-9.

–. “Walk Right In” (Gus Cannon, Hosia Woods, Erik Darling, and Willard Hooker Svanoe). Janis. LP, Columbia Records PG 33345, 1975; CD (import), COL 467406-9.

Songs cited: Bessie Smith

Smith, Bessie. “Black Mountain Blues” (H. Cole). Columbia Records 14554-D, 1938. Reissued on Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith. Vol. 4. CD, Columbia Records C2K 52838, 1993.

–. “Downhearted Blues” (Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin). Columbia Records A3844, 1928. Reissued on Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith. Vol. 1. CD, Columbia Records C2K 47091, 1991.

–. “Easy Come, Easy Go Blues” (W. Jackson and E. Brown). Columbia Records 14005-D, 1924. Reissued on Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith. Vol. 1. CD, Columbia Records C2K 47091, 1991.

–. “Foolish Man Blues.” Columbia Records 14273-D, 1927. Reissued on Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith. Vol. 3. CD, Columbia Records C2K 47474, 1992.

–. “Gimme a Pigfoot” (Wesley Wilson). Okeh 8949, 1933. Reissued on Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith; “The Final Chapter.” Vol. 5. CD, Columbia Records C2K 57546, 1996.

–. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Any Woman’s Blues. LP, Columbia Records G 30126, 1929. Reissued on Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith. Vol. 4. CD, Columbia Records C2K 52838, 1993.

–. “St. Louis Blues” (W. C. Handy). Columbia Records 14064, 1925. Reissued on Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith. Vol. 2. CD, Columbia Records C2K 47471, 1991.

–. “Take Me for a Buggy Ride” (S. Wilson). Okeh 8949, 1933. Reissued on Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith; “The Final Chapter.” Vol. 5. CD, Columbia Records C2K 57546, 1996.

–. “There’ll Be a Hot Time in Old Town Tonight” (T. Metz). Columbia Records CO 14219-D, 3173-D, 1927. Reissued on Bessie Smith. The Complete Recordings of Bessie Smith. Vol. 3. CD, Columbia Records C2K 47474, 1992.


Looking for Langston. Dir. Isaac Julien. Videocassette, Sankofa Film & Video. New York, NY: Water Bearer Films, 1989/1992.

St. Louis Blues. Dir. Dudley Murphy. Gramercy Studio of RCA Photophone, presented by Radio Pictures, 1929.

Jana Evans Braziel, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, has published or has articles forthcoming in Callaloo; Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism; A/B: Auto/Biography Studies; Tessera: Feminist Interventions in Writing and Culture; Journal X: a journal in culture and criticism; and The Journal of North African Studies; as well as in several edited collections. Currently, Braziel is completing Trans-America: Haiti’s 10th Department and Diasporic Cultural Production, a book that explores literary, musical, cinematic, artistic and performative forms of cultural production in the Haitian diaspora. She is also co-editor of two volumes of essays: with Anita Mannur, Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader (Blackwell Publishers, 2003); and with Kathleen LeBesco, Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (California, 2001).

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